Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Taylor Swift: Fearless - review
Those who bemoan US cultural imperialism might take heart from the fact that Britain has been steadfastly resistant to a surprising amount of American rock and pop. There seems to be no place in the UK's affections for booty bass or jam bands, no space on record-buyers' shelves for the brand of ghastly post-grunge rock headed up by Creed and Three Doors Down. Most striking of all may be British audiences' refusal to listen to any country music that isn't suitably aged or blessed with the prefix alt-. So blanket is their lack of interest that it's easy to forget what huge business mainstream country is in the US, where artists called Rascal Flatts and Kelly Pickler sell millions and, most baffling of all to British audiences, country singers regularly triumph on Simon Cowell's talent shows: witness Carrie Underwood, an American Idol winner gone on to superstardom singing songs with names like Jesus Take the Wheel and Before He Cheats.
You'd obviously be no more likely to win Britain's Got Talent singing country than you would performing Fields of the Nephilim covers while beating a child, which makes the decision to launch 19-year-old Taylor Swift over here intriguing. The feeling is clearly that she can replicate her remarkable US success, Nashville-based or not. And what success - she was the biggest-selling artist of 2008. Her debut album is still on the charts after two years, and Fearless, its follow-up, has spent more weeks at No 1 than any album this century. In addition, she arrives in Britain partially deafened by the volume of critical praise, although admittedly some of the critical praise takes a form that makes you wonder if turning all the lights off and pretending to be out until Swift goes away might be the best course of action. One critic hailed her as "a skilled student of established values", which makes her sound like an up-and-coming columnist on the Daily Mail.
Of course, two recent US country artists have made it big here: Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes, who succeeded via the simple expedient of removing virtually every vestige of country influence from their music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's to their model that Swift cleaves. There's a bit of mandolin and her accent is surprisingly chewy, but the only song that breaks out the banjos and the pedal steel sets them against a metronomic beat and chugging guitar that doesn't sound like the Strokes so much as Since U Been Gone, the popped-up take on the Strokes' style devised by Max Martin and Dr Luke for Kelly Clarkson. Indeed, Max Martin and Dr Luke seem far more apposite names to evoke than Dolly Parton or the Dixie Chicks. Swift's self-penned music is only really identifiable as country via the references to one-horse towns and the regular guest appearances by God in the lyrics. Her stock-in-trade is a kind of orthodontically perfect pop-rock. If you question how well a record so utterly rooted in suburban America is going to travel - will all this stuff about crying with momma in the bleachers because that dreamy senior boy is dating the freshman cheer team leader play well in Newton-le-Willows? - the answer lies in the tunes: she cranks melodies out with the pitiless efficiency of a Scandinavian pop factory.
More surprising is the critical acclaim heaped on Swift's lyrics. Back home, comparisons have been made to Randy Newman, Hank Williams and Elvis Costello, which turns out to be setting the bar perhaps a tad higher than Swift can reach. She has a tendency to use the same images over and over again - she spends so much time kissin' in the rain that it seems a miracle she hasn't developed trenchfoot - but she is fantastically good at regarding teenage life with a kind of wistful, sepia-toned nostalgia: "When you're 15, somebody tells you they you love you, you're gonna believe it," runs the chorus of Fifteen. This is both clever - at a stroke it broadens her potential market from teenage girls to anyone who used to be a teenage girl - and a bit creepy, given that she's actually mistily recalling these events through the wizened-but-wise eyes of an 18-year-old. You applaud her skill, while feeling slightly unsettled by the thought of a teenager pontificating away like Yoda: "In your life you'll do things greater than dating a boy on the football team ... You'll wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now." Becoming prom queen matters not. Get over it you will.
Then again, mixed feelings are very much par for the course listening to Fearless, a record that does something bland and uninventive but does it incredibly well. Listening to it, you occasionally find yourself wondering if the world really needs any more music like this. The feeling that the world is going to answer your query in the affirmative swiftly overwhelms you.